Workers Are Essential, CEOs Are Not

Mindy Isser April 1, 2020

Workers re-stock items during special hours open only to seniors and the disabled at Northgate Gonzalez Market, a Hispanic specialty supermarket, on March 19, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Mario Tama / Getty)

First pub­lished at Jacobin.

Low-wage work­ers are on the front line in the bat­tle against coro­n­avirus. While many work­ers have start­ed telecom­mut­ing — and many oth­ers have unfor­tu­nate­ly been laid off — low-wage work­ers are busy clean­ing our streets, mak­ing sure we have enough to eat, and, of course, nurs­ing us back to health if we get COVID-19. Despite being linch­pins of a func­tion­al soci­ety, these work­ers are often treat­ed as expend­able or dis­missed as unskilled.” But over the past few weeks, we’ve seen just how irre­place­able they are.

In Cal­i­for­nia, New York, Illi­nois, Penn­syl­va­nia, New Jer­sey, and else­where, state gov­ern­ments have rolled out increas­ing­ly strict orders to enforce social dis­tanc­ing and close all busi­ness­es except those deemed essen­tial” or life-sus­tain­ing.” While these lists vary from state to state, each includes gro­cery stores, laun­dro­mats, restau­rants (serv­ing take­out and deliv­ery), fac­to­ries that pro­duce food­stuffs and oth­er prod­ucts, gas sta­tions, phar­ma­cies, and hospitals.

What do all of these busi­ness­es have in com­mon? They rely on the labor of low-wage work­ers who, in many cas­es, toil with­out ben­e­fits, unions, and work­place pro­tec­tions. Pub­lic work­ers are still on the clock, too, clean­ing our streets, deliv­er­ing our mail, and mak­ing sure we have access to util­i­ties and oth­er social ser­vices. While many gov­ern­ment work­ers have unions, they are often accord­ed the same lack of respect as their low-wage, pri­vate-sec­tor counterparts.

But imag­ine a glob­al pan­dem­ic with­out postal work­ers or UPS dri­vers get­ting us our mes­sages and pack­ages; with­out cashiers and stock­ers keep­ing gro­cery stores up and run­ning and full of food; with­out care and domes­tic work­ers pro­vid­ing life-sav­ing med­ical and emo­tion­al sup­port to some of society’s most at-risk peo­ple; with­out util­i­ty work­ers mak­ing sure we have a sup­ply of water, elec­tric­i­ty, and gas; with­out laun­dro­mat work­ers enabling us to clean our clothes, tow­els, and sheets; with­out san­i­ta­tion work­ers col­lect­ing our trash and slow­ing the spread of germs.

While many indi­vid­u­als have expressed appre­ci­a­tion for these front­line work­ers — leav­ing hand san­i­tiz­er out for their let­ter car­ri­er; call­ing for an increase in teach­ers’ salaries after hav­ing to home­school their kids for a few days — our soci­ety has long under­val­ued them, both mon­e­tar­i­ly and oth­er­wise. That’s start­ing to change, thanks to the cri­sis and work­er orga­niz­ing that has turned up the heat on bosses.

Min­neso­ta, Michi­gan, and Ver­mont have all clas­si­fied gro­cery store employ­ees as emer­gency work­ers, mak­ing them eli­gi­ble for child­care and oth­er ser­vices. Stop & Shop work­ers have received10 per­cent pay increase and two addi­tion­al weeks of paid sick leave. Safe­way, Tar­get, and Whole Foods work­ers won a $2‑per-hour increase. And union­ized work­ers at Kroger in Wash­ing­ton state have been giv­en haz­ard pay, a demand tak­en up by many gro­cery and oth­er front­line work­ers across the coun­try. These vic­to­ries, while small, have inched us clos­er to a soci­ety where low-wage work­ers final­ly get the remu­ner­a­tion and respect they deserve.

But what does it say about our coun­try when the jobs that are most crit­i­cal to sus­tain­ing life at its basic lev­el are also some of the low­est paid and least val­ued? Gro­cery store work­ers and first respon­ders are expos­ing them­selves to a mas­sive health cri­sis in order to keep the rest of us func­tion­ing as nor­mal­ly as pos­si­ble. Many of them work for min­i­mum wage or close to it — and with­out health ben­e­fits — mean­ing that they could con­tract coro­n­avirus and get stuck with either a mas­sive bill or no health care at all. Mean­while, with many school dis­tricts closed indef­i­nite­ly, par­ents are miss­ing the crit­i­cal and chal­leng­ing work done every day by nan­nies, child­care work­ers, and edu­ca­tors of all kinds.

These work­ers have a right to high­er wages, full ben­e­fits, health and safe­ty guar­an­tees, and strong unions — just like every oth­er worker.

Hope­ful­ly, this cri­sis will not only ele­vate the sta­tus of low-wage work­ers but spark a new wave of orga­niz­ing to boost stan­dards and build pow­er across these essen­tial” indus­tries. Because it’s low-wage work­ers — not bankers, land­lords, or CEOs — who make our soci­ety run.

In These Times is proud to fea­ture con­tent from Jacobin, a print quar­ter­ly that offers social­ist per­spec­tives on pol­i­tics and eco­nom­ics. Sup­port Jacobin and buy a sub­scrip­tion for just $29.95.

Mindy Iss­er works in the labor move­ment and lives in Philadelphia.
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